Madam C.J. Walker: Long road to success

Published 11:04 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Madam C.J. Walker was born just outside of Delta, Louisiana on a cotton plantation to former slaves. Her parents died when she was barely seven, leaving her and her sister to eke out a meager living by working the cotton fields in Vicksburg. She wanted out of the harsh manual labor environment and out from under the abuse of her brother-in-law, so at 14 she married. Two years after she had a daughter, her husband was killed in a race riot.

She packed her bags and her daughter and moved to St. Louis to be closer to her four brothers. There she finally went to work selling hair growth ointment from Poro Company which she found because of her own scalp problem and hair loss.

She noticed the high demand from black women for hair care products.

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Walker concocted her own creams for hair growth and hair softening. However, she did not invent the hair straightening comb as many people believe.

In 1905, Walker packed her creams and ointments and her daughter and moved to Denver with the hopes of starting her own hair care company to be sold door to door.

She soon married a newspaper man, Charles Joseph Walker, who helped her advertise her products in black newspapers. Soon, she went on the road with a comprehensive line of beauty products for black women throughout the South and Southeast finding her products sold very well.

In 1908, she opened a beauty college for training beauty culturalists in her products in Pittsburgh. Indianapolis embraced her in 1910. There she built a factory, another college and a nail salon. She began her philanthropic career by donating $1,000 to the building fund of the “colored” YMCA in Indianapolis which created quite a stir among the black press around the country.

Walker expanded her business across the seas in the Caribbean and into Central America in 1913. Then in 1916, she moved to New York building her mansion Villa Lewaro.

She continued her contributions to NAACP causes. Her philosophy stated by her, “This is the greatest country under the sun,” she told women at the national business women’s conference in Philadelphia in 1917, “But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice.”

According to her great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, “Tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products and ‘honest business dealings’ were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent. ‘There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,’ she once commented. ‘And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.’”